“Don’t move!” A voice yells, footsteps running towards me. I’m lying flat on my back, rain falling in my eyes as I stare up at the night sky. A man’s face appears over me, “I’m a nurse, you’ve just been hit by a car. Let’s get this bike off you and check you out.”
It’s got to be everyone’s worst nightmare. Right? I know that, amongst my friends, the fear of being hit keeps most of them off the road, and generally off their bikes. With decent infrastructure in place that kept both cyclists and drivers safe, you really wouldn’t have a problem. More people would ride, the nation would climb out of the top spot for obesity numbers, congestion might decrease and the smog might thin out a bit. An all round a win, really.
What I’m talking about here is on-road infrastructure. Properly designed bike lanes that give a cyclist enough space and visibility to travel safely in all weather conditions. When someone uses their bike as their main source of transport to commute too and from work, or rides for exercise, they don’t exactly dawdle along. Being asked to ride on a bike path that is shared with people walking dogs, people teaching toddlers to ride or those freaking white ear bud headphones is dangerous.
As well as infrastructure, we also need a change in law so that cyclists are treated like any other road user. In a regional area like the Bega Valley on the South Coast of NSW, bike lanes aren’t really an option. So how do we make it safe for cyclists on a country highway?
In mid 2010 I got a job as a pushbike Postie, riding around all day delivering mail. I was obese and unmotivated; the job changed my life. After six months in that job, I decided if I was going to be forced to ride around in whatever weather came my way I might as well ride to and from work every day too. My girlfriend and my best mate put in together to get me a bike for my birthday; I was a changed man.
At that point it had been at least 15 years since I’d ridden a bike with any seriousness. I noticed a few things straight away; lots of cyclists make up their own rules on the road, cars don’t see you most of the time and when they do, they get pissed off that you’re on their road. It didn’t take me long though to realise why cyclists make up their own rules. Cyclists are vulnerable, they’re fragile and if you’ve ever had a close call with a car, you’re quick to accuse and anger and you find ways of staying away from cars.
In May of 2011, I had not quite learnt those lessons yet. It’s Friday evening, just on dusk, pouring rain and bang on peak hour. Having done 3 hours of overtime on the work bike, I just wanted to get home, get horizontal and not move again till the next morning. I changed bikes and made a move towards home.
The mixture of the streetlights and the headlights of the peak hour traffic makes the road shine in the sleeting rain and wind. The traffic light in front of me changes and I take off, somewhat reluctantly.
Once I get out on to the road, into the bike lane, I relax a bit. There’s no one else in the lane at all, I can just move along at full speed. As I approach the next intersection, the light goes orange but there’s one thing going through my mind. I want to get home.
I stand up in the pedals, lean forward and go for it to make this light. The guy coming towards me who is waiting to turn right shakes his head and leans heavily on his horn. I kind of laugh at myself a little and push on through. It’s all good now, straight road, a whole bike lane for myself as far as I can see. I sit down and relax into the next 10 minutes of the ride.
Meanwhile, beside me, the cars have come to a complete standstill. It all happened so fast. The car coming the other way found a gap between gridlocked traffic and turned right through it. All I saw of it was the nose of the car coming towards me with no time to stop. I felt the impact; a moment of free falling, then I was lying on the road. Witnesses tell me I did a full somersault over the bonnet of the car with the bike still attached.
It had literally been a matter of days since I had said to my parents “I reckon it’s a matter of when, not if, I get hit riding my bike”. I really felt like I was having a near miss every day. People poking the nose of their car out into the bike lane to see past parked cars, people not wanting to wait for the slow cyclist or, more often than not, people not even looking at the bike lane provide a constant threat to cyclists.
I think the woman who hit me was more of a mess than I was at the time. It came out afterwards that her best friend had died in nearly identical circumstances a year earlier.
The relationship between drivers and cyclists has been problematic, probably since the first car hit the road. Fixing this relationship and finding a way both can be on the road becomes more and more important as driver and cyclist numbers both continue to climb as the population grows.
Garry Brennan is a spokesman for Bicycle Network, a Melbourne based lobby group. He believes the solution is in normalising cycling.
“So that the driver comes to understand that that person on the bike is just like them, they just happen to be on a bike. They’re a normal every day Australian, some time during their day, during their week; they’re on a bike. We remove this hostility towards cyclists because if you think that cyclist up ahead of you is just like you, could be someone you know then you’re far less likely to be hostile towards them.”
Australia has definitely worked pretty hard at normalising cycling. 10 years ago if I went out riding along the highway here on the South Coast of NSW I would not have seen anyone else on a bike. These days, on any given day I’m likely to see at least one other person. Over the weekend I might go as far as seeing 10 other cyclists in a ride.
Garry says that Victoria alone these days has 1.1 million riders and we’ve seen a major national increase on a steep incline over the last five years. On average on most major roads we have seen an increase of 10 percent in that period. So clearly cycling is becoming normal, we just have further to go.
In the case of my accident, there was a clearly marked bike lane. I would argue though that that lane was not good enough. The road I was riding on lead to a major freeway entrance providing access to the outer Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. As you can imagine, during both peak periods that road is in gridlock. The fact that cars need to stick their nose out in to the bike lane in order to see if it is safe to go says it all.
We only need to look at a country like Denmark to see that decent infrastructure does work. Cycling numbers in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands are apparently 10 times that of the U.K and the U.S for example. In those European countries, cycle lanes are separated from vehicles, cyclists have their own traffic signal systems, infrastructure clearly separates cyclists and motorists at all times. Both parties feel safe. It goes further than that though, the development of this kind of infrastructure might actually see cycling become a normal form of transport rather than the current situation in which it looks like a game for the uber fit elite who are willing to play chicken with their lives.
When it comes to riding on roads without infrastructure the Amy Gillett Foundation (AGF) has been campaigning for a long time now to give cyclists space with their ‘Metre Matters’ campaign. This campaign is fighting to see it recognized as law that any vehicle passing a cyclists needs to leave at least a metre between them and the cyclist. Their campaign goes further than that, recommending that vehicles travelling faster than 60 km/hr should provide a metre and a half.
This issue was recently drawn back into the national media with the death of Richard Pollett. Pollett, 25, was crushed by the back wheels of a cement truck in September 2011 while riding along a major road in Kenmore, an outer suburb of Brisbane. After the truck driver was, last week, acquitted of charges of dangerous driving causing injury, community groups like the Queensland Bicycle User Group (QBUG) spoke out in anger. The biggest issue, they say, is that drivers can treat cyclists like any other ‘object’ seen on the roadway. Objects such as a witch’s hat! A cement truck can legally pass a cyclist with the same amount of space as it would a witch’s hat. What, none??
It appears that there are conflicts in the law. Bicycles are seen as vehicles and therefore expected to be on the road but at the same time vehicles are allowed to share the lane with them. This law allows drivers to move past a cyclist in a space that is realistically unsafe. The point here is not that the cyclist should be given the whole lane, rather, that the vehicle should provide space by straddling the centre line. In other words don’t push past a cyclist when you can’t see what is ahead.
The AGF campaign is hugely popular amongst cyclist and has generated real interest on a state-by-state level. Most states now offer a metre as their recommended passing space for cyclists. One might well ask though, what’s the harm in making it law?
I’ve had regular incidents on the highway with cars and even trucks pushing past me on blind corners with both wheels of the vehicle inside the lane, leaving me no space at all. One event last week saw a Ute coming the other way fall into a ditch in an attempt to get out of the way of someone who was too desperate to get past me.
The big lesson I learnt from my accident was stay off major roads. Most suburbs in any city have good bike lane networks through back streets. You don’t have to be relegated to a shared walkway but you don’t need to be on a major thoroughfare.
How do we make things better for cyclists? Get on your bike. Show the council that we use the bike lanes that are there so that they make more. More users mean more infrastructure. When you do use the bike lane, ride defensively, if you have right of way don’t hesitate, that’s what gets you hit. If you don’t have bike lanes then ride in the left tire mark of the road and stay there. If you hold your line then cars behind you can pick their line and move past you safely. I know that cyclists often aren’t at fault but we are the ones at risk, so, eat humble pie, always play by the rules, be defensive and keep yourself safe.